In this article first published on his blog and reproduced here with his permission, Sreejesh Nair discusses what makes a good mix assistant, based on his experience as a mix assistant and now being supported by a mix assistant. Over to you Sreejesh...
In any mix studio, the order of seniority goes from a side to the centre. As you gain more experience, you graduate to that coveted chair in the sweet spot. That being said, I have always maintained that a good mix comes not from just the mixing engineer, but his or her assistant. It is always about team. My mixes won't be half as good if I didn't have good assistants. This is also why I refer to them as associates and not assistants. But why? If there is talent won't it be enough to do it on your own?
I personally don't agree to that. Of course you can do all the work on your own without an assistant. But, the whole creative sphere is extended very much when there is someone who is pretty much an extension of your own. Truthfully, I think I have spent more time mixing and working with them rather than at home with my family!
Why A Good Assistant?
Every person who turns into sound is doing it for passion. I don't think any one else would come in to a field, that that has anyone having an opinion on what they hear, unless it was pure passion. With passion there is one more thing that is very important for every newcomer and that is guidance or grooming. A good engineer will have a very good assistant only if he is good at guiding. They have to be a part of what I do and an extension of what I do. I am fortunate enough to have some very brilliant associates working with me. They keep me sane and help me in developing techniques. More importantly, they are the ones who take care of the way I need to have the sessions set up and initially balanced so that when I come, I can just concentrate on the mix. I can be assured that everything else will be taken care of. Backups, mix stems, etc etc.
It is also very important that the communication between the engineer and his assistant be without ego. I learnt all I have by being an assistant. I developed my thoughts from there because I was inspired and this is what I do too. I teach and explain everything I do and why I do it as clearly as I can and I take my time and do it. There is no point in having an ego of what if they learn or what if they go ahead. No. for me good assistants will carry over a legacy. They become independent, but that is also the beauty. When they work with you, it is in effect twice the output, and much better quality.
Who Is A Good Assistant?
When I started off, my job was to make sure the Hi-8s were aligned, the MODs were loaded into the AKAI DD8s with the proper order, the beeps were all lined up and the mix session is loaded, not to mention the edits and the resyncs etc that have to be done. This is not uncommon for someone starting. I also had to order tea, clean the place up and make notes and remove all papers from the studio. It sounds like a lot of work. But what I got was the whole studio to myself once the mix was over at around 3 in the morning. I would experiment and play around from 3:30am till whenever I fell asleep. Wake repeat action.
But that isn't what defines a good assistant. That is an assistant. A good assistant will be inspired and someone willing to learn. But not just learn, it is important to be able to distinguish what is good sound and what is bad sound. He or she will also be the person who is the first to think out of the box. Why? Usually the mix engineer is held up with the story of the film and hard at work conveying what the director, music director, sound designer etc want. The assistant has all this time to do 2 things:
Learning never stops for an assistant. He has to learn the way I work first. He would then understand why I work that way. Successful ones will adapt from that, not copy that. I am really happy that I had some very good guys. They were my ears when I was tired and my extended mind when I wanted some time to think, leaving them to do the edits or setups. Doing all of this means they get to know the software as a tool and not as the focus. This is the practise that leads to them becoming good and eventually better. As for me, a mix engineer will always learn, from his peers or his assistants.
They are also the ones to bring to you some interesting questions and workflows. For example, the 11.1 Pan I mentioned here came from a question that Sarath asked me as a feature because there were 5 speakers. So, they too inspire you to think outside the box. They are the ones who will first politely question your moves because that didn’t make sense or they had a better thought. I always make it a point to listen to them and correct them if wrong or compliment if right. They get info on new plug-ins or new ideas as they are fresh minds that can be inspired quickly. They are also the least bothered about their names, while I or any mix engineer worth his salt would fight for their assistants names onscreen. I credit them for their work when I can because that will bring out the best in them and the best in me. Yes, if they didn’t take care of the tasks, my mixes would all be the same pattern.
So the mix assistant is not a low position. For me, it is the most important one as they are my extended family and take care of all aspects of the film leaving me to the creative aspects. They are my fresh sets of ears for a film or what a director needs. The are the ones who hold my back during stressful situations. And most importantly, the ones who ensure that I rest and so I make sure they do, learn and get inspired.
This post is to all the wonderful sound assistants and future ones. Good mentoring is priceless.